Feb. 26, 2004 | San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom "looked like the cat who ate the canary," Supervisor Tom Ammiano recalls, at a hastily convened private meeting Feb. 10. That's when Newsom told Ammiano, who'd run against him for mayor last November, about his plan to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and asked for Ammiano's support.
"I'm fucking delighted!" the stand-up comic turned politician told the new mayor. Almost two weeks later, Ammiano was still beaming. City Hall had become a giant wedding chapel; just outside Ammiano's door, same-sex couples were being married in the glorious rotunda, on balconies and landings, in a dozen quiet nooks all over the building. And the national gay-rights leader was at a rare loss for words to describe the scene. "It's just so, so ... so queer!" he says finally. "But I think he's unleashed something that's bigger than all of us."
That's for sure, although it's still not clear exactly what it is. Even some gay rights advocates have worried that Newsom unleashed a big fat political backlash, epitomized by President Bush's decision Tuesday to back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "What Mayor Newsom has done in San Francisco ... has in fact energized and motivated those who support marriage between one man and one woman," Mathew Staver, president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, told the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bush's decision on Tuesday.
That's supposedly why Rep. Barney Frank warned Newsom against his bold move. (Ammiano shakes his head at Frank's judgment. "That's Barney -- so Beltway-centric!") But Democrats all over the country have been telling the new mayor that the only person happier than the gay newlyweds is Karl Rove, who will now be able to run a campaign about the Democrats' degradation of marriage, rather than unpleasant issues like the jobless recovery, the massive budget deficit and the Iraq debacle. And the debate is sure to rage on: Will San Francisco's Winter of Love make it easier for Republicans to hold onto the White House next November?
No one knows for sure, but I don't think so. I feel like I have to confess upfront that my analytical skills have been warped by watching all of these weddings. You can't imagine what it's like from a distance. Straight or gay, visitors get teary when they walk inside City Hall, where the meaning of what Newsom did is huge and palpable. It's always struck me as vaguely homophobic, the insistence on how "normal" these couples are, but that really is what hits you in person. Sure, there are drag queens in the line waiting for marriage licenses, and plenty of old-fashioned flannel-shirted lesbians. But there are also 50-something men in bad suits and women in Prada; there are women in wheelchairs and interracial couples; and there are children everywhere, kids doing homework sitting on the floor as they wait for their parents' turn to get married. These are families already, and once you see them you know: There's really no going back.
And the ripple effect across the city, and the world, is enormous. In San Francisco, everyone knows someone who got married -- two of my daughter's public school teachers did it -- and practically every city official was deputized to marry couples over the long Valentine's Day weekend. I ran into bleary-eyed Newsom staffer Joe Caruso on Friday, the day Cambodia's King Sihanouk came out in favor of gay marriage after seeing the San Francisco weddings on TV, and Caruso was carrying one of the hundreds of bouquets of flowers strangers had sent from all over the world. The card was inscribed simply: "To the happy couple, With love from Eileen and Darren of British Columbia." People were dropping by City Hall all last week just for the emotional high. Straight San Francisco, too, is glowing with gay pride.
But it's too early to know how Newsom's move will play politically, or even legally. It's still possible the courts will say he's wrong and stop the weddings. In the meantime, San Franciscans can be proud of what's going on in City Hall. I walked away last week unexpectedly happy, knowing without a doubt: This is what history looks like. This is what it feels like to do the right thing.